DR RITA PEMBERTON
The freshly-minted members of the re-inaugurated Tobago House of Assembly accepted a huge responsibility when they assumed office in December 1980. With ANR Robinson in the Chair and with Dr Jefferson Davidson as his Deputy, the other members of this first Assembly were: Hochoy Charles, George Archer, Edwin Caesar, Bernadette desVignes, Kenneth Jones, Samuel Toby, Stanford Callender, Thomas Denoon, Beatrice Julien and William McKenzie and Councillors Dr JD Elder, Everette John. James Ogiste and Regis Caruth.
The population breathed a sigh of relief for at last, Tobago had a homegrown group to administer its affairs and this historic moment was cause celebre. While the members of the Assembly approached the task at hand with determination, the population held great expectations that the island’s problems would finally be resolved or at least the process would be initiated and be concluded in the shortest possible time. This was not surprising because life had been very difficult on the island and there were generations of Tobagonians whose total life experience was that of deprivation of services, facilities, jobs, training opportunities and effective administration. While their sentiments are understandable, the task which faced the initial THA was complicated and onerous and the magnitude of its responsibility will only be appreciated by an examination of the issues with which it had to deal.
The first problem is what Robinson effectively summarised as “the betrayal of trust” to the people of Tobago. While he was specifically referring to the administration of Central Government in Trinidad, it is to be noted that there were two episodes of betrayal; first, from the imperial government and its agents and continued by the colonial authorities.
When, during the second half of the 19th century, the imperial government was faced with Tobago’s downward spiraling economy, it became clear that economic resuscitation was well-nigh impossible. Given the poor state of the island’s sugar industry, it was evident that Tobago could not satisfy its expected role in the imperial system which is to supply profits to the British treasury. With profits being the primary item on the imperial agenda, it was absolutely essential to cut costs. Although in 1889, the imperial intent was subsumed under the guise that Tobago would benefit from its association with Trinidad, Britain’s cost-cutting mission in Tobago reflects imperial policy very clearly: the appointment of lower level administrators with reduced salaries; reduced number of officials by duplicating their responsibilities on the island and in different territories, for example the Tobago Supervisor of Roads was based in St Lucia, and the elimination of some positions altogether. In this process the welfare of the general population was sacrificed.
In 1898, some groups in Tobago advocated for closer union with Trinidad because they believed that it would be beneficial to the island. They played into the hands of the imperial government, which was anxious to get rid of the problems the island posed and left them at the mercy of a disinterested Trinidad-based colonial government which simply ignored the island. Hence the imperial solution of 1889 and 1898 failed to address the island’s problems.
The next episode of betrayal occurred after the colony attained self-government with the failure of the post 1956 measures to address Tobago’s needs even after the Premier’s confession that the island was badly treated. The measures which were slowly implemented, were neither formulated in consultation with the representatives of the people of Tobago nor always supported by the population. The country’s change from independence to republican status made little difference to the state of Tobago. Thus the Assembly was immediately confronted with the plethora of problems which faced the island.
The lack of services and opportunities on the island which led to the population drift to Trinidad, drained the island of its much needed human resources and needed to be addressed. The high cost of living which was largely the result of the absence of direct contacts with the rest of the world, caused dependency on the transshipment of goods from Trinidad. In addition to hiked prices, that arrangement was stifling to Tobago businessmen who complained incessantly.
The drift from agriculture, which transformed the island from a food exporter to a dependent on food imports was regarded as retrograde and in need of urgent attention. So too was the question of the complicated land titles issue with which the island remains plagued to this day.
The central issue which faced the new Assembly was the ability of the island’s representatives to make inputs into the determination of the island’s development agenda. At the time of its inauguration, the island lacked representation on the various arms of government which made decisions on issues of national development. While the idea was to attain the kind of economic development which considered the interests of the ordinary people of Tobago, the THA was not yet empowered to make the critical inputs on behalf of the people of Tobago.
The issue which reared its thorny head is how to begin correcting the longstanding problems which had been stimulated, and in some instances entrenched, by the various phases of the “betrayal of trust." The new administrators were immediately faced with challenges not the least of which were the flaws in the Act itself. As was indicated in the previous column, the Act left the THA under the control of the Central Government, a situation that was counter-productive and unacceptable to the advocates of self- rule. This was a battle that had to be fought and won before an effective democratic system in which the THA had the flexibility to become a functional government and respond to the needs of the population, could be established. However, the most important restriction was that the new THA was functioning with a Central Government which was made up of the main opponents to the Tobago autonomy drive, the ones who deliberately fashioned an Act which left the THA impotent. While the THA received a clear mandate from the people of Tobago to seek autonomy for the island, the inherent need to overcome the restrictions of the Act and of the opponents in the Central Government, placed the new THA on a rocky road and created the need for another round of battles to enable a process which could result in erasure of the impact of the longstanding “betrayal of trust.”